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Oswego community reacts to drug deaths, pub crawl ban

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OSWEGO — With the heroin overdose death of one SUNY Oswego student and the arrest of another on a felony drug charge, university officials and city police are saying heroin is a growing problem in the area.

One major step was taken to combat the problem: a ban on the Bridge Street Run, an annual spring semester bar crawl. But how effective that move will be is questioned by many involved, who are calling the ban a knee-jerk reaction unrelated to the drug problem.

Bridge Street Run, or BSR, as it is often called, dates back to the 1960s, but has become a bigger attraction during the past several years, said Julie Blissert, director of public affairs at the university. She said more and more out-of-town visitors come to Oswego for the pub crawl, an annual ritual before finals week.

“It’s gotten worse every year,” she said. “This year, it was bigger than ever.”

One such visitor who took part in the festivities Friday was 21-year-old Brian T. Tumolo, a Long Island resident who is now being held in Oswego County jail on felony drug charges. He is accused of selling heroin to two others, who both overdosed on the drug and had to be taken to Oswego Hospital.

Mr. Tumolo allegedly sold the drug to 22-year-old Gabriel A. Gonzalez, a SUNY Oswego student from Connecticut who then allegedly sold the drug to Steven R. Wilock, 22, the student who died of an apparent drug overdose Saturday morning in a campus residence hall.

An alert issued by the school Saturday morning implied that the heroin in question may have been laced or tainted, but that was still unclear Wednesday, Ms. Blissert said.

The overdoses occurred less than three weeks after another SUNY Oswego student, Sean D. DeMerchant Jr., 22, died April 24 of an apparent drug overdose. Both Mr. Wilock and Mr. DeMerchant were graduates of Shenendehowa High School, Clifton Park.

In her 30-plus years with the college, Ms. Blissert said, she has not encountered the death of a student to an overdose on campus until now.

At that pace, the city would far surpass the 10 or so drug overdoses police typically see annually, according to city police Capt. Charles Tonkin. Of that number, including both fatal and non-fatal occurrences, five or six are heroin related, a trend Capt. Tonkin said is on the rise.

“Heroin is absolutely a problem,” he said.

Capt. Tonkin said that many heroin users start with prescription drug abuse, but that more people are turning to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to find.

Ms. Blissert said periodic surveys by the school have not documented any increase in heroin use, but she said it is apparent that heroin is becoming a problem at the school and in the community.

In a statement issued Tuesday, university President Deborah F. Stanley said: “Heroin use is a growing problem nationally and has recently intruded into our community with tragic results. SUNY Oswego has lost lives to this scourge, a terrible bill to pay.”

She called for a “new approach” to Bridge Street Run, calling on the bars to refuse to serve disruptive patrons.

Mr. Tumolo was found with 40 glassine envelopes of heroin in addition to the heroin he was accused of selling.

Another man, Ryan R. Russell, 26, of Sarasota, Fla., was arrested early Sunday on multiple charges, including felony marijuana possession and misdemeanor driving while intoxicated. University police said he was stopped on Route 104 near the entrance to campus. Nearly 18 ounces of marijuana was found in his vehicle, police said. Like Mr. Tumolo, Mr. Russell is not a student at the school.

Despite two non-students apparently in town because of BSR, Capt. Tonkin said, the recent decision to ban the pub crawl will not have much of an impact on drug arrests.

Students on campus largely agreed.

“The ban on BSR isn’t going to change anything on drug use,” senior anthropology student Victoria L. Brodeur said.

Senior anthropology/history student Rhiannon N. Peshniak called the recent death of Mr. Wilock “awful,” but said the Oswego Common Council’s decision Monday to ban BSR is unnecessary.

“Do I think they went overboard? Absolutely,” she said.

Rebecca S. McGurk, a senior childhood education student, said she believes Mr. Wilock’s death provided the ammunition the council needed to pass the ban.

“I think they’re using his death to make a statement,” she said.

If the community wants to crack down on the commotion surrounding BSR, she said, police should focus on underage participants, who she said typically are more rowdy than students of legal age.

Both Ms. Peshniak and Ms. McGurk said the implied correlation between BSR and increased drug use is unfair.

Ms. Blissert agreed. She said BSR, with which the school has no affiliation aside from university police assisting city police, is centered on alcohol consumption rather than drug use.

The school does not provide student transportation for the event. A trolley bus that struck two pedestrians Friday night was not affiliated with the school. Ms. Blissert said the bus driver was driving the wrong way on a road near a busy five-point intersection on Route 104, near the Shed bar and restaurant. Traffic patterns had been altered because of BSR, she said, and the driver apparently was unaware of the change and at fault for the accident. She said it is unlikely any tickets will be issued.

Michael J. Dolan, a SUNY Oswego alumnus and now a University of Chicago student, said there has always been a divide between locals and students.

Capt. Tonkin said that police will work with the school and local officials to discuss the BSR ban, but that it is too early to determine what measures can be taken to combat the pub crawl.

“We’re waiting to see what the laws allow us,” he said.

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